It is the most requested photo from the National Archives: the photo of an uptight President and the King of Rock and Roll buddying up in the Oval Office. How did this meeting come to be and what was it for?
It all started in Memphis, TN at the famous mansion, Graceland. Elvis Presley was getting a talking to from his wife Priscilla and his father Vernon on spending more than $100,000 that Christmas season. Guns and at least ten Mercedes-Benzes don’t buy themselves.
Irritated, Elvis, accompanied by his aide Jerry Schilling, boarded a flight from Memphis to Washington D.C and then to his home in Los Angeles, California. Then Elvis told Schilling to book a flight back to D.C. Although Elvis didn’t say why, but Schilling figured it was because Elvis got it into his head to try and obtain a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, the predecessor of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Elvis loved badges. His fame and the need for security that brought with it allowed him to make friends with police departments around the country. He had a big collection of honorary police badges. His public reason for wanting a badge from the BNDD was to fight anti-American hippy drug culture, but the real reason, according to wife Priscilla in her book Elvis and Me “…he believed he could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs.”
On his flight to D.C., he traveled with California Senator George Murphy. He asked him how he could go about getting one of these badges and Murphy suggested Elvis write to President Richard Nixon. Elvis quickly wrote a letter to the President saying, “Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out” and promising “I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a federal agent.”
The letter, written on the letterhead of American Airlines, was personally delivered by Elvis to the White House at 6:30 AM on December 21, 1970. He then went to the BNDD headquarters and asked for a badge from Deputy Director John Finlator. Request denied.
Lucky for Elvis, his letter reached the hands of Nixon aide Egil “Bud” Krogh. Krogh was a big fan of Elvis and slyly thought a meeting between the two would be a public relations dream. Krogh convinced the top White House bosses to the meeting and by noon Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll himself, walked into the Oval Office.
Decked out in a purple velvet jumpsuit and cape, gold chain, and sunglasses, Elvis proudly showed Nixon his collection of badges, family photos, and bling. He then got to business, blaming anti-American ideas on drugs, Communism, and the Beatles.
“Presley indicated he thought the Beatles had been a real force of anti-American spirit,” recorded Krough. “He said that the Beatles came to this country, made their money, and then returned to England where they promoted an anti-American theme. The President nodded in agreement and expressed some surprise. The President then indicated that those who use drugs are also those in the vanguard of anti-American protest. Violence, drug usage, dissent, protest all seem to merge in generally the same group of young people.”
“I’m on your side,” Elvis told Nixon before asking for the badge. Nixon asked his aides if this could be done, was told that it could, and ordered a badge be made for the King. Elvis then hugged a surprised Nixon and presented him with a mounted gold World War II era Colt .45 that he had plucked from the wall of his L.A. home.
Elvis picked his badge up that afternoon and was made an official federal agent for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. It had been less than twelve hours since he wrote the letter.
That New Year’s Eve, Nixon wrote a warm thank you letter:
Dear Mr. Presley,
It was a pleasure to meet with you in my office recently, and I want you to know once again how much I appreciate your thoughtfulness in giving me the commemorative World War II Colt 45 pistol, encased in the handsome wooden chest. You were particularly kind to remember me with this impressive gift, as well as your family photographs, and I am delighted to have them for my collection of special mementos.
With my best wishes to you, Mrs. Presley, and to your daughter, Lisa, for a happy and peaceful 1971.
The story itself wouldn’t be revealed to the public for more than a year, as Elvis thought it would hurt the publicity surrounding his big come back special.
We can’t all practice what we preach, and Elvis was no exception. He died of complications from long-term heavy drug use on August 16, 1977. His badge resides at Graceland. The Colt .45 is at the Richard Nixon Library.